Race and Victimhood in Postwar Representations of Sexual Violence in Occupied Italy

Although it was not until the 1990s that the history of sexual violence in World War Two Italy began to be considered seriously by scholars, it was represented in literature and film in the early postwar period.[13] Undoubtedly the most well-known work dealing with wartime sexual violence is Alberto Moravia’s 1958 novel, La Ciociara (Two Women). In Moravia’s book, much as in Andrea Z.’s testimony, it is with the liberation that the true suffering of Italian civilians begins. La Ciociara tells the story of the horrors that plagued Southern Italy during World War Two through the experiences of two women: Cesira, a widowed shopkeeper, and Rosetta, her adolescent daughter. The novel is narrated by Cesira, who chronicles the women’s flight from Rome to the region of Ciociara, where they hope to find bread, peace, and family away from the chaos of Rome but, instead, encounter starvation, ignorant peasants (with the exception of the young student and intellectual Michele, who they befriend) and eventually, the arrival of the Allies with the French Moroccan troops. While the threat of sexual violence is present throughout the novel from all sides – from the fascists, to Italian civilians, to the American troops – it is the French Moroccan troops, the strange soldiers “dalla pelle scura e con le facce come di turchi” dressed in white sheets who “se non ci fosse stata la guerra, questi marocchini mai e poi mai sarebbero venuti in Italia” that actually defile Rosetta; Cesira is attacked and passes out as Rosetta is gang-raped in an abandoned church as the women flee the falling bombs of the Allies (Moravia 2006: 261). The representation of the French colonial soldiers contrasts sharply with the depiction of the German soldier, Gunther, who rapes Ida Mancuso, the protagonist of Elsa Morante’s 1974 novel La Storia during the occupation of Rome in World War Two. Gunther is ordinary and pitiable, with his ill-fitting uniform, childlike face, and longing for his mother and his home (Morante 1974). Before he brutally assaults Ida, he helps her carry her groceries up the stairs and shows her a photograph of his family. Gunther may be a sexual aggressor but he is also, like Ida and unlike the French colonial troops, a victim; he is killed fighting a war for which he has little understanding or conviction.

But Rosetta’s rape is central in a way that Ida’s is not. Rosetta’s rape is highly symbolic: her violation is also Italy’s writ large, foreshadowed, as Kozma-Southall writes, in a series of violent instances leading up to the rape, such as in a detailed description of Allied shelling (Kozma-Southall 1984: 209). She writes that the shelling “transforms the novel from the simple story of two victims to the quasi-allegory of two women who are also integral parts of a much larger and more universal meaning, i.e., the violence done to Rosetta is like that done to Italy during the war” (ibid.). Moravia himself, in a letter to his editor, Valentino Bompiani, wrote of the centrality of rape to the book and discusses the possibility of calling the English-language translation simply “Rape”: “The title will remain La Ciociara even though the more appropriate title would be ‘Lo Stupro’ (the rape). In fact, absolutely in the classical manner: ‘The Rape of Italy’. I think that since La Ciociara is a title that’s untranslatable in English, I’m going to propose ‘Rape,’ which sounds good as a title… In the story there is really no love, there is only (as you’ll understand) a rape” (Moravia 2001: 348). If there is only ‘a rape’ in the novel, there is also hope for redemption at the novel’s end for the two women, and for Italy.

For Moravia, “la guerra è infatti uno stupro, e cioè la profanazione di qualcosa di intatto, di puro” (Seroni 1957). However, some foreign journalists refused to recognize the deeper meaning(s) that the rape held and the apparent allusion to Italian victimhood that it implied. In a bitter 1958 review of the book in the New York Times, the American journalist Charles Poore wrote that Cesira was nothing more than a simple egoist who was seeking “peace and largesse at the hands of the Allied forces” (Poore 1958). She was awaiting, as he writes, liberation which was really “defeat” but which the Italians had somehow turned into a “victory”. While Poore does note that the focal point of the book is the “attack” (the word “rape” is never used) of Cesira and Rosetta by the French Moroccan troops and that all that leads up to it is prelude, he does not ponder at length on its meaning. For Poore, this novel teaches us nothing new about the horrors of war. Rather, it should give us a greater appreciation for the suffering of the British: “In truth, if you compare the bombardments from the air that the Londoners endured for five years with the amount of shellfire around Cesira and Rosetta, you come out with a renewed admiration for the superior fortitude of the British people.” (ibid.)

In Poore’s comparative framework, the British suffered much more than the Italians during the war. Moreover, the evident critical (and, implicitly, unjustified) attitude among Italians in the novel towards the Allies was also noted, “especially when their arrival did not immediately inaugurate a risorgimento of good times, good food, good clothing, and improved housing among the ruins for all” (ibid.). Poore clearly had little patience for the book’s allusion to Italian victimhood. In a much more glowing review of the novel, Marc Slonim wrote that the rape scene is the “book’s least convincing episode, even though it has an important place in the larger symbolic structure” (Slonim 1958). The two women are, according to Slonim, victims of the war: “War kills their innocence and goodness, turning them into tools of evil.” (ibid.) Slonim, unlike Poore, seems far less loath to call the two women victims. For Poore, it seems that to name Cesira and Rosetta victims would be to grant Italy a victim status too.

Permalink: https://www.lettereaperte.net/artikel/ausgabe-2-2015/158

Bildnachweis: Mulberry Street (ca. 1900), Library of Congress (cc), https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/8/8e/NYC_Mulberry_Street_3g04637u.jpg/1200px-NYC_Mulberry_Street_3g04637u.jpg